“Authoritarian regimes apply the epithet ‘historic’ to every simple policy.” Interview with Burak Onaran

Burak Onaran is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Mimar Sinan Güzel Sanatlar University, Istanbul. He received his PhD in History from the EHESS, Paris. His research interests cover mainly the social, political and culinary history of the Ottoman Empire and Republican Turkey. During the years 2019-2020, he is a EUME Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and associated with the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Politics at the Freie Universität Berlin. In Berlin, he is working on the research project “Politics of Time and History: Turkey’s Regime of Historicity in the Coup d’Etat of 1960”.

Burak, you are studying the politics of time and history in Turkey, especially in the context of the coup d’état of 1960. How did you become interested in this topic?

The reasons I am interested in this topic are mostly based on historiographical considerations. History is evidently a time-oriented discipline. The field of political history in Turkey, like elsewhere, analyzes the past through time-oriented concepts, starting with change, continuity and memory. It is a rich field with numerous valuable works on the social, cultural, and economic aspects of the political history in Turkey.  There are also precious works focusing directly on the Turkish official historiography and its evolution over time. However, time itself has never been the main concern for any of these works. My initial aim in this project is to bring time into the center of attention of the political history.  That means to re-read the Turkish political history in a way which mainly focuses on the complex interaction between the regime of temporality and the time perception on the one side and politics on the other.

The choice of the coup d’état of 1960 as the subject field of study is essentially based on its importance as a radical transformation in the Turkish political history. The modern regime of temporality has its obvious echoes in the modern political vocabulary. We are all familiar with the temporal references which serve to categorize any given political idea, program or ideology.  A political program can be thought to be ‘too late’ or ‘too early’ of its time. It might be believed to ‘accelerate’ or ‘decelerate’ time. This legitimizing power of temporal references is what makes modern political attempts to govern time and history. And these attempts are certainly more visible in the course of radical political transformations, such as coup d’états or revolutions. They open up a period during which the daily routines of citizens are severely interrupted, national calendars are reshaped and the national history is rewritten or harshly modified. Borrowing Siegfried Kracauer’s metaphoric phrase, we can call these periods “biological freaks”, since they attempt to “father the time that has fathered them”. Following this line of thinking, my research project focuses on the first coup d’état of the Republican era. The coup d’état of 1960, together with the following junta period, has long been considered the second foundational era of the Turkish Republic.

In your research you are arguing that there is a connection between the politics of history in authoritarian regimes and social and economic policies pursued by these regimes. Could you elaborate on that link?

The politics of time and history, not only in authoritarian regimes but in general, is closely interrelated with social and economic policies. For instance, since 1989, the global hegemony of the capitalist market economy and its unrivaled social and economic policies have determined the scope of our political universe and limited our political imagination. We are unable to dream about a solid political alternative to capitalism. Collective utopias have lost their credibility and have been mostly replaced by the expectations for the improvement of consumption capacity. This is closely related to the dominant way of perceiving and experiencing  time. We are living in a presentist regime of historicity. The present (capitalism) constitutes our only possible horizon of expectation. That is what Enzo Traverso calls “the time of neo-liberalism”. It is the regime of historicity that we are experiencing under “the dictatorship of the stock-exchange”. Just like neo-liberalism, every policy model, regime and ideology has its politics of time and history which has been interwoven with its social and economic policies. When it is particularly about authoritarian regimes, we should be aware of the difficulty of making generalizations since each regime has different ideological orientations, which also affect their social and economic policies diversely. Yet, the discursive frame of these policies is very much linked to the authoritarian regime’s politics of history. Authoritarian regimes are usually much more eager to attribute a historical significance or mission to themselves and their policies. There is an excessive use of the epithet “historic” in such regimes. What Victor Klemperer has written on the important place given to the word ‘historic’ in the vocabulary of Nazism is relevant for any totalitarian and authoritarian regime. During the Third Reich, the openings of new highways, roadways and of even smaller branch roads were identified as ‘historic’ (occasions). The word ‘historic’ helps to justify the authoritarian policies and the extraordinary nature of the regime. It generates an authority derived from history. Under the epithet of ‘historic’ the lived-present turns into a culmination point of the past as well as the founding past of the future. Authoritarian regimes apply the epithet ‘historic’ to every simple policy.

How is the politics of history in contemporary Turkey different than in the period of your study?

The attempts and tactics concerning the historicization and eternalization of the present in both periods show considerable similarities. In both periods, for instance, there is a very strong claim for being ‘foundational’. There are also constant efforts to register the ongoing present immediately into the national history. The coup d’état of May 27, 1960 and the failed coup of July 15, 2016 have been immediately placed into history textbooks. Both dates have also been introduced into the national calendar as national commemoration days. However when we look closely at the content of national histories, we can see the radical differences between these two periods. The most important one is the emphasis put on the Democrat Party period in 1950-1960. The coup d’état of 1960 was against the conservative government of the Democrat Party. The priority of the Junta regime was to blame the former ruling party and prove that it had attempted to reverse the historical progress of the country. So the coup was believed to have accomplished a historical mission: It put the flow of history ‘back in order’ by overthrowing the ‘reactionary’ government and hence reassured the continuity of the Kemalist-progressive legacy. The government of contemporary Turkey also claims to put history back on track. But this time the ruling party has enthusiastically embraced the period between 1950 and 60.  The current version of the ‘correct flow of history’ also specifically highlights the legacy of the Ottoman Empire and that of Sultan Abdülhamid II.  Of course, such modifications of the national history have their roots in the previous decades, due to the increasing influence of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis on the official state ideology. Nevertheless, the emphases on Democrat party period and the Ottoman legacy are much more powerful today.

What is the transregional dimension of your study?

Working on the relationship between politics, history, and the experience of time naturally requires a strong transnational and transregional dimension. First of all, academically speaking, studies on memory and time worldwide have influenced my research project. This literature has especially been proliferated in Eastern Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And more importantly, we should take into account the very fact that the modern conception of historical time has a very strong spatial dimension. The image of the world map in our minds is colored in shades of temporal differences. We are assuming temporal distances between countries and/or regions. The politics of time in the so called ‘backward’ regions is mainly based on the objective of covering this temporal distance and hence becoming the contemporaneous with the present of the advanced countries. The coup d’état of 1960 has itself been a temporal promise for the annihilation of this time lag. During the aftermath of the coup, the junta regime has sold the hope of catching up to the present of the advanced world through economic, political and social reforms. The coup d’état has been defended and legitimized as an event which corrected the national chronology and has the capacity to take the nation forward. It has been a kind of ‘time machine’ for accelerating the flow of time for the nation. I think that the analysis of the complex relationship between politics and the experience of time during the coup of 1960 has lots to teach us far beyond Turkish national political culture. 

Questions: Ewa Dabrowska


Citation: “Authoritarian regimes apply the epithet ‘historic’ to every simple policy.” Interview with Burak Onaran, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.04.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18400.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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